The government response to the Nurse review accepts the premise but rejects the prescription

DSIT has published its response to the Nurse review of the research landscape, but there's not much evidence of the unifying strategy Nurse asked for. James Coe breaks it down

James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

Whatever Paul Nurse had in his mind’s eye when he made his independent recommendations on the UK’s research, development and innovation organisational landscape back in March 2023, this probably wasn’t it.

The government’s response to the Nurse review, published alongside the Autumn Statement, has a lot of enthusiastic language on the coherence and sustainability of the research landscape.

Rather than forcing choices about where to focus investment to achieve national priorities, the government has opted for the whole system to be “more” – more “diverse”, more “resilient”, and more “investable”. In doing so, many of Nurse’s more specific recommendations are picked up, but his review’s core plea for a single unifying strategic direction that would in turn shape choices about priorities and funding systems for the long term, has gone unanswered.

Instead, the document styles itself as a “series of short term actions” and a “first step” towards addressing the broader challenges laid out in the Nurse review. There’s quite a lot about what’s already happening, existing strategies, and frequent reminders of the achievement of Horizon Europe affiliation. And there is the promise of more to come in the months ahead – including a national plan for R&D infrastructure, an interactive map of UK research excellence and innovation clusters, and a “sector-wide discussion” on how research organisations are funded and their financial sustainability.

Financial sustainability

DSIT has clearly heard the arguments about the funding shortfall in research, and acknowledges the financial pressures on universities in particular, but stops short of responding with measures to address it. The phenomenon of cross-subsidy from international fees and the dual support system in which research projects are habitually funded at 80 per cent of full economic cost are framed as features of the system, rather than bugs – and the complexity of the research system and the various researching organisations involved are cited as a reason not to take immediate action. A key line signals that changing the funding system would involve choices that might not be especially palatable:

Any restructuring of this research funding settlement would come with significant trade-offs. For example, uprating the fEC rate would likely either result in government procuring a smaller amount of research directly, or result in a shift in the balance of dual support away from QR.

However, as illustrated once again in a new UKRI issue paper and data pack on the financial sustainability of research, there is a gap between the notional 80 per cent full economic cost recovery for project-based research and TRAC data that suggests the real number is less than 70 per cent. The risk, as acknowledged in the response, is that financial pressures cause autonomous universities to divert funds away from research capital investment and support for wider activity that support the research ecosystem. The government has committed to exploring this further in a “sector-wide discussion” that the UKRI publication is designed to kick off – aligning with parallel reviews of funding streams including Research England’s review of institutional strategic funding.

The “investable” section, which sets out how the government plans to increase private and philanthropic investment in R&D, includes innovation-friendly regulatory environment, investment in innovation centres, £20m for a UKRI cross-disciplinary proof of concept fund, and the recently published review of university spin-outs.

But the big new thing is apparently a “step-change” in philanthropic investment – DSIT will work to build relationships with the philanthropic community with a view to establishing a funding pipeline for the UK’s R&D institutions. The opportunities and potential pitfalls of this approach were neatly set out recently in an article for the FT by Andrew Hunter Murray, which highlighted examples of where philanthropic investment has worked well, especially in blue skies or exploratory research, and where some of the wilder fringes of philanthropic egomania can distort or distract the progress of serious research.

A diverse research landscape

A central recommendation of the Nurse review was that the government should take more deliberate actions to encourage a greater diversity of research organisations. In its response, DSIT sets out its intention to strengthen (primarily) researching organisations that are not universities – while clarifying the intent is not to signal a reduction in support for university research. Supporting diversity includes creating new organisational models – ARIA, the AI Safety Institute, and a National Academy for mathematical science are given as examples – and £10m for a new joint DSIT/UKRI metascience unit that will evaluate the impact of changes in funding systems.

Nurse was particularly concerned that the 50 or so public sector research establishments (PSREs), which he considered to be “valuable national assets” are grappling with “siloed and restricted funding environment risks placing constraints on their functionality.” Nurse’s recommendation for PSREs is that they would have a clearer purpose made real through more cross-department working, management, and resource allocation. Nurse advocated for a “more strategic approach to better harness their expertise and maximise their effectiveness” but both Nurse and DSIT acknowledge this is easier said than done.

This is because there is enormous variability between PSREs. It is hard to imagine what a coherent set of strategic interventions for bodies that includes such a varied cohort as the ONS, National Nuclear Laboratory, and Marine Scotland Science, could look like. The lack of single mission and integration between PSREs is an issue that has been considered before in the government 2019 paper realising our ambition through science. The appropriate management of what were then termed government research establishments was first looked at as far back as 1993.

Unsurprisingly then, the response eschews a single strategic mission or even a set of strategic ambitions for PSREs but instead puts forward some policy proposals that integrate PSREs a bit more into the rest of the research sector. There are measures to improve their visibility, notably through a “PSRE day”, there is a continued commitment for infrastructure funding, and an idea of “co-funding” to allow PSREs to bid for UKRI grant-based research.

There is less on Nurse’s wider concern about the sustainability of PSREs aside from further explorations of funding, new modes of accountability, and commitments to cross-working among departments – and even less about Nurse’s proposal that those public-sector research organisations and institutes that are found to be no longer delivering strategic priorities should be mothballed.

Strong and stable

The government has a lot of policy activity on the table, but it is a different set of policy plans than Nurse envisaged. This is partially a question of timing. The response commits to more permeability between academia and industry but this work is being developed through the spin-out review, various UKRI initiatives and elsewhere. It does not tackle many of the bureaucratic problems Nurse highlighted – but the response to the Tickell review of research bureaucracy has yet to appear – we’re now told it’s coming in early 2024. It also does not break much new ground on the investability of R&D in the UK but this comes as we await wider measures like updating calculations on R&D spend, the implementation of investment zones, and the ongoing reform of R&D tax credits.

Most obviously, Horizon association has been secured since Nurse wrote his review. Nurse was particularly concerned that the UK would drop out of the world’s largest research framework and failure to associate would have undermined many of his aspirations.

In addition to association to Horizon there are measures that have been copied from the government’s alternative plan, Pioneer. For example, there is £250m from endowments for a Discovery Fellowship scheme, aimed at attracting mid-career STEM researchers to work in the UK.

Elsewhere, the talent commitments are less expansive than other policy measures within the response. There is some commitment to support the training of more R&D staff through apprentices, Institutes of Technology, and the new Advanced British Standard which in theory will replace A levels and T levels. There are temporary visas for AI researchers (it is worth noting that visa and healthcare costs for researchers are continuing to rocket), and some further campaigns on the value of working in R&D.

The government response has policy action in a number of the areas that Nurse highlighted. These are undoubtedly policy measures that are impactful in their own terms and will be felt as positive moves among researchers – it may be that among the blizzard of initiatives and strategies, there will be moves towards a more stable, diverse, and sustainable sector. The Nurse review offered one way of thinking about how to achieve that, the DSIT response accepts the core challenges while offering a very different policy prescription.

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